By Betsy DiJulio

Vegan Korean fried chicken may be the tastiest oxymoron on the planet. 

Korean Fried Chicken—which someone cleverly dubbed “the other KFC”—emerged as a “thing” in the US long after I no longer consumed meat.  So, I had never experienced this gastronomic phenomenon and never thought I would.  But why does it even matter?  After all, there are more delicious dishes in the world than one could ever consume, unless maybe you are or, sadly, were Anthony Bourdain.

A thin, crispy, and crunchy exterior seasoned with spices and both salt and sugar encasing a juicy interior is what makes the Korean preparation the cock of the walk. Over the last 30 to 40 years, as America’s obsession with food has continued to explode, “KFC” chains and mom-and-pop operations have been popping up everywhere, each with its own secret ingredients, techniques, and variations on a theme, though I understand potato starch is often a key ingredient and double frying a favored technique.

On a Saturday morning late in February, I walked into KOCO Korean Fried Chicken and Croffles in a nondescript Virginia Beach strip mall where one of my Filipino students had invited me to participate in a lumpia rolling class.  Previously, she had met me at 7:45 a.m. at the door to our school studio with a just-fried batch of still-warm vegan lumpia for which I would happily pay good money.

I knew the class was based on a filling I couldn’t eat—though my husband, Bob, could—and I never dreamed the restaurant would offer any vegan menu items, but I joked that I wanted to support Carmella’s college fund.  So, I happily paid her $30 fee, a low price as it turns out, for a delightful morning of culinary community building with an intimate group of other faculty, parents, and students from our school along with an introduction to a new-to-me taste sensation.

Plus, the setting was unexpectedly lovely:  minimal, spotless and bright with polished concrete floors, white walls, and mod globe sconces.  Seating is at three long rows of wood-topped black tables with benches against the side walls and contemporary-industrial black or red chairs everywhere else.  A large sculptural light installation composed of plants and gracefully curving contemporary baskets is suspended in the center of the space.  Orders are placed at one of three simple-to-use computer screens on an industrial butcher block counter with black metal pipe legs in the front window; the large, semi-open commercial kitchen lies beyond.  

One of the students, a vegetarian, asked if I wanted to share an order of vegan Korean fried chicken.  I said “sure” having no idea what was in store.  After the first bite, it was all I could do not to “share it away from here,” as my sister and I used to say when we were kids.  Three to four generous tofu filets—“strips” is a skimpy-sounding misnomer—comprise an order.  Each pearly white and fluffy slab of tofu is encased in that golden-brown uniquely addicting sweet-savory crust. Bathed in the house made Soy Garlic Sauce, the exterior remains crispy, like a cracker just dropped into a bowl of soup, retaining its crunch even as it begins to absorb the broth.

As diners out know, menu prices these days are subject to change, but you will pay in the neighborhood of $12 for the Soy Garlic—or Spicy Soy Garlic—Vegan Chicken Strips Combo which is served with your choice of fries, rice, or vegan pancit, a golden feathery light version.  On its own, an entree-size serving of this traditional Korean rice noodle dish—with cabbage, carrots, celery, onions, and tofu—is $10.  An order of eight vegan dumplings flavorfully filled with edamame, shitake mushrooms, and vegetables costs around $9.  And if you would like your vegan chicken as a sandwich, the Banh Mi sets off that delectable fried tofu with fresh cucumber, pickled radish, and cilantro, but check to confirm that the garlic aioli is vegan.

If you are vegetarian, the love child of the croissant and waffle known as a Croffle is, from all indications, an over-the-top sensation abundantly and beautifully topped in too many colorful and decadent ways to describe.  If not, the vegan “Combo” alone is well worth the trip.

KOCO Korean Fried Chicken and Croffles, 4876 Princess Anne Rd #113, Virginia Beach,